Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Elephant No. 31: Sidewalk Chalk

I'm guessing this might be one of the last nice days of fall, so I thought I'd do sidewalk chalk for today's elephant.

Although blackboard chalk used to be made of actual chalk—limestone/calcite—modern blackboard and sidewalk chalk are made of gypsum that has been coloured and compressed into sticks. Other forms of "chalk", such as tailor's chalk and chalk for gymnastics or weightlifting, are made from different minerals, such as talc or magnesium carbonate. Interestingly, the abrasive in many toothpastes is calcite chalk.

In addition to its use in blackboard and sidewalk chalk, gypsum is the primary component in drywall and plaster of Paris. As an artists' material, gypsum is one of the main ingredients in traditional gesso. Although long used as a canvas primer, in medieval times, gesso was also used by scribes and manuscript artists as an undercoat for gilding.

Some of the most astonishing chalk drawings being done today are large-scale optical illusion or "anamorphic" sidewalk creations and wall murals by artists such as Julian Beever, Tracy Lee Stum, Kurt Wenner and Edgar Mueller. Although I love these, I know I don't have it in me to learn how to draw like this. I also don't have forty feet of sidewalk-straightaway to work with.

I had bought a couple of boxes of sidewalk chalk a few years ago, but I'd never used them. I probably bought them because they came in pretty colours, then avoided using them because a) I'm shy by nature, and drawing on a sidewalk is rather public; b) I'm not a good enough sidewalk artist to make this look anything but slightly pathetic; and c) I had vague fears of looking like I was trying too hard to reclaim my inner child.

For today's elephant, I had a box of regular chalk in a decent range of colours, as well as something called "sidewalk crayons". I bought these because they looked like they'd be brighter and more interesting; ultimately, however, they seemed to be only a slightly darker type of chalk.

The first step is obviously to sweep the sidewalk to provide a clean(ish) surface on which to work. A pox upon the sidewalk snowplough that gouged my canvas last winter.

The next step was roughing in a sketch.

Another important step involves scaring off pedestrians until you're done. It was interesting—and actually pretty funny—to have people walk right on top of the drawing. They literally stepped over me, and once almost on me, while saying things to one another like, "Did you see the elephant? Kind of cool."

There is also the dubious thrill of chatting with random passersby and explaining what you're doing. The first of these was a three-year-old boy, who looked at the elephant and announced, "That's littering, you know!" Another child informed me sagely that the elephant would disappear in the rain. A woman with three children in tow asked me sweetly if she could take a picture of it. A scary-looking guy wove his way onto it when I was almost done, and asked me what kind of animal it was.

Once the sketch is more or less there, you can start filling things in. I learned that sidewalk chalk is actually more complicated than I had assumed. First off, you need to add a lot of pigment to make the design show up against the concrete. I ran out of grey chalk almost immediately.

It's also important to really smudge everything. This helps spread the pigment around and makes the design more opaque. And if you smudge with the "grain" of the concrete, it will give you a more uniform result. I discovered, too, that sidewalk chalk actually blends quite nicely when you smudge colours into one another. It's almost like working with oil pastels on paper. Almost.

There are a few drawing-related challenges to working with sidewalk chalk as well. One of these is that it's very hard to draw something when you're sitting on top of it. You lose all sense of how the different parts relate to one another. The only way to deal with this is to step away from the drawing, then leap back in to fix something before you forget what it was, and where it was.

Another challenge is the whole issue of perspective and foreshortening. Although my drawing is only about four feet high, when photographed from the bottom, the crown looks quite compressed. When photographed from the top, the elephant is squished. The third photograph in this series was taken from the side, and shows the actual proportions. I see now why it takes forty feet of sidewalk to make some drawings look realistic.


The final result only took about 45 minutes of actual drawing. It wasn't particularly difficult or annoying—although I don't really like having chalky fingers, and my fingertips definitely got rubbed smooth. If I were ever to draw a sidewalk elephant again, I'd make sure I had multiples of grey chalk. And a no-fly zone.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although most people call the lion the King of the Beasts, some say that this honour should go to the elephant. There are all kinds of folktales about which animals are better, which reminded me of this story from India.

Once upon a time, in an Indian jungle, there lived an elephant and a monkey. The elephant liked to walk slowly through the jungle, while the monkey liked to swing from tree to tree. Although the two were friends, one day they got into an argument.

The elephant boasted that he was was the strongest animal in the jungle, and pulled a young tree up by its roots to prove it. The monkey replied that he was the quickest animal in the jungle, and raced to the top of a tree to prove it. The elephant tossed his head and said, "It is better to be strong than quick."

"No," replied the monkey, "it is better to be quick than strong."

Unable to agree, they asked an owl to tell them whether it was better to be quick or to be strong.

The owl replied, "If you perform this task, the answer will be clear. Go to the other side of the river, and bring me back a golden fruit from the tree you will find there."

The elephant and the monkey raced to the riverbank. But the river was very deep, and the water was very swift. The monkey was afraid. "I cannot cross the river," he said to the elephant. "Let me climb onto your back."

"You see?" said the elephant. "Because I am so big and strong, crossing the river is nothing to me. Climb on my back, and I'll carry you across." The monkey climbed onto the elephant's back, and together they crossed the river.

On the other side of the river, they quickly found the tree. It was very tall, and the fruit was high over their heads. The elephant tried to pull down the tree with his trunk, but the tree was too strong. He tried to reach up and grasp the fruit with his trunk, but it was too high. The elephant realized he would not be able to bring the owl any of the fruit.

The monkey, however, jumped quickly from the elephant's head and clambered up the tree. He picked one of the large golden fruits and tossed it down to the elephant, who stored it in his mouth. Then the monkey climbed onto the elephant's head, and they swam back across the river.

They gave the fruit to the owl, saying, "Here is the fruit. Now, please tell us: is it better to be strong or to be quick?"

"Which of you brought me this fruit?" asked the owl.

"I plucked it," said the monkey, "because the elephant cannot climb trees as I do."

"But you could not have reached the other side of the river if I had not carried you," said the elephant.

"Then it seems that you brought me the fruit together," said the owl. "Neither of you could bring me the fruit alone. Now tell me which is better: being strong or being quick?"

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation


  1. I see you resisted the urge to include a hopscotch grid! We see them for miles over here.

    I love "overheard" comments.

  2. Hopscotch! I should have thought of that. I love "overheard" comments, too.